February 20, 1997
Mr. Manuel H. Vlieg
2461 Logue Street
North Bellmore, NY 11710
The staff of the Committee on Open Government is authorized to issue advisory opinions. The ensuing staff advisory opinion is based solely upon the information presented in your correspondence.
Dear Mr. Vlieg:
I have received your letter of January 20, which reached this office on January 28. You indicated that you requested certain records from the Town of Hempstead but that you have not yet received a response. If the failure to respond can be considered a denial, you asked that I accept your letter as an appeal.
In this regard, the Committee on Open Government is authorized to provide advice and opinions concerning the Freedom of Information Law. The Committee is not empowered to determine appeals or compel an agency to grant or deny access to records. Nevertheless, I offer the following comments.
First, the Freedom of Information Law provides direction concerning the time and manner in which agencies must respond to requests. Specifically, §89(3) of the Freedom of Information Law states in part that:
"Each entity subject to the provisions of this article, within five business days of the receipt of a written request for a record reasonably described, shall make such record available to the person requesting it, deny such request in writing or furnish a written acknowledgement of the receipt of such request and a statement of the approximate date when such request will be granted or denied..."
If neither a response to a request nor an acknowledgement of the receipt of a request is given within five business days, or if an agency delays responding for an unreasonable time after it acknowledges that a request has been received, a request may, in my opinion, be considered to have been constructively denied. In such a circumstance, I believe that the denial may be appealed in accordance with §89(4)(a) of the Freedom of Information Law. That provision states in relevant part that:
"...any person denied access to a record may within thirty days appeal in writing such denial to the head, chief executive, or governing body, who shall within ten business days of the receipt of such appeal fully explain in writing to the person requesting the record the reasons for further denial, or provide access to the record sought."
In addition, it has been held that when an appeal is made but a determination is not rendered within ten business days of the receipt of the appeal as required under §89(4)(a) of the Freedom of Information Law, the appellant has exhausted his or her administrative remedies and may initiate a challenge to a constructive denial of access under Article 78 of the Civil Practice Rules [Floyd v. McGuire, 87 AD 2d 388, appeal dismissed 57 NY 2d 774 (1982)].
Second, in your letter you indicated that you asked that the Town provide you with the following:
"1. The original announcement of test for Radio & Telephone Dispatcher 65335.
2...a copy of attendance records for years 1992 - 1996 for Candidates Manuel H. Vlieg and Christine Coleman.
3...copy of the test results for Radio & Telephone Dispatcher #65335, showing list of those passing in numerical order.
4. The results of interviews for the eligible candidates interviewed including names, dates, time and name of person who conducted said interview."
As a general matter, the Freedom of Information Law is based upon a presumption of access. Stated differently, all records of an agency are available, except to the extent that records or portions thereof fall within one or more grounds for denial appearing in §87(2)(a) through (i) of the Law.
An announcement of a test in my opinion would clearly be available, for none of the grounds for denial would be pertinent.
Although two of the grounds for denial relate to attendance records, based upon the language of the Law and its judicial interpretation, I believe that such records are generally available.
In addition to the provisions dealing with the protection of privacy, also significant to an analysis of rights of access is §87(2)(g), which permits an agency to withhold records that:
"are inter-agency or intra-agency materials which are not:
i. statistical or factual tabulations or data;
ii. instructions to staff that affect the public;
iii. final agency policy or determinations; or
iv. external audits, including but not limited to audits performed by the comptroller and the federal government..."
It is noted that the language quoted above contains what in effect is a double negative. While inter-agency or intra-agency materials may be withheld, portions of such materials consisting of statistical or factual information, instructions to staff that affect the public, final agency policy or determinations or external audits must be made available, unless a different ground for denial could appropriately be asserted. Concurrently, those portions of inter-agency or intra-agency materials that are reflective of opinion, advice, recommendation and the like could in my view be withheld.
Attendance records could be characterized as "intra-agency materials." However, those portions reflective of dates or figures concerning the use of leave time or absences or the time that employees arrive at or leave work would constitute "statistical or factual" information accessible under §87(2)(g)(i).
Also relevant is §87(2)(b), which permits an agency to withhold record or portions of records when disclosure would result in "an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy." The Committee has advised and the courts have upheld the notion that records that are relevant to the performance of the official duties of public employees are generally available, for disclosure in such instances would result in a permissible as opposed to an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy [Gannett, supra; Capital Newspapers v. Burns, 109 AD 2d 292, aff'd 67 NY 2d 562 (1986) ; Steinmetz v. Board of Education, East Moriches, Sup. Ct., Suffolk Cty., NYLJ, October 30, 1980; Farrell v. Village Board of Trustees, 372 NYS 2d 905 (1975) ; and Montes v. State, 406 NYS 664 (Court of Claims 1978)].
In a decision affirmed by the State's highest court dealing with attendance records, specifically those indicating the days and dates of sick leave claimed by a particular employee, it was found, in essence, that disclosure would result in a permissible rather than an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. In that case, the Appellate Division found that:
"One of the most basic obligation of any employee is to appear for work when scheduled to do so. Concurrent with this is the rights of an employee to properly use sick leave available to him or her. In the instant case, intervenor had an obligation to report for work when scheduled along with a right to use sick leave in accordance with his collective bargaining agreement. The taxpayers have an interest in such use of sick leave for economic as well as safety reasons. Thus it can hardly be said that disclosure of the dates in February 1983 when intervenor made use of sick leave would constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy. Further, the motives of petitioners or the means by which they will report the information is not determinative since all records of government agencies are presumptively available for inspection without regard to the status, need, good faith or purpose of the applicant requesting access..." [Capital Newspapers v. Burns, 109 AD 2d 92, 94-95 (1985), aff'd 67 NY 2d 562 (1986)].
Insofar as attendance records or time sheets include reference to reasons for an absence, it has been advised that an explanation of why sick time might have been used, i.e., a description of an illness or medical problem found in records, could be withheld or deleted from a record otherwise available, for disclosure of so personal a detail of a person's life would likely constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy and would not be relevant to the performance of an employee's duties. A number, however, which merely indicates the amount of sick time or vacation time accumulated or used, or the dates and times of attendance or absence, would not in my view represent a personal detail of an individual's life and would be relevant to the performance of one's official duties. Therefore, I do not believe that §87(2)(b) could be asserted to withhold that kind of information contained in an attendance record.
Next, it appears that an eligible list was prepared in relation to the exam. In this regard, §71.3 of the regulations promulgated by the State Department of Civil Service, which is entitled "Publication of eligible lists", states in relevant part that:
"Eligible lists may be published with the standing of the persons named in them, but under no circumstances shall the names of persons who failed examinations be published nor shall their examination papers be exhibited or any information given about them..."
Based upon the foregoing, an eligible list in my view identifies those who passed an exam and, therefore, are "eligible" for placement in a position. Further, an eligible list, based on the regulations cited above, is clearly public. Insofar as a record or records might identify those who failed an exam, I believe that they may be withheld on the ground that disclosure would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.
Lastly, assuming that those interviewed are identified on an eligible list, if records exist that indicate their names, the dates of interviews and the identities of those who conducted the interviews, I believe that those items would be available in conjunction with the preceding commentary.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Douglas Mac Leod